LATimes offers readers a simple, one-sided take on Vatican

Every niche website has a few “big ideas” that drive its work day after day. Any GetReligion reader knows — duh — that one of our big ideas is that the press often doesn’t see crucial religious themes and facts that are at the heart of important news stories. That’s the whole “ghost” concept that is explained in the essay published when we opened for business. If you never stopped to read that one, please do.

Another crucial concept for your GetReligionistas is that we are convinced that the “hotter” the story, the more a topic causes public division and debate, the more journalists should commit themselves to seeking out informed, qualified, representative voices on both sides. Of course, there are two sides or more, in many complex stories. This concept is central to what journalism textbooks would call the “American model of the press,” as opposed to the various forms of advocacy journalism in which the editors of publications openly slant their coverage to favor the editorial viewpoint that defines their newspaper.

That’s why it was so important when Bill Keller, days after he stepped down as New York Times editor, said the following in a public forum when he was asked if his newspaper slanted the news to the left:

“We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what were the crucial “social” or moral values stories in American life during his tenure? And how about in the news today? Well, any list would have to include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other topics that, for a majority of Americans, are inevitably linked to religion.

That brings me to yet another mainstream journalism story in which editors appear to be totally comfortable publishing a one-side advocacy piece that offers zero content from informed voices on one side of a global debate.

Journalists in the audience: Raise your hands if you know that there are multiple camps in the Catholic Church today on issues related to sexuality? If you are breathing right now, your hand should be raised high.

So what are the editors of The Los Angeles Times trying to do in the piece that ran under this headline: “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions.”

Note the word “debate.” That implies that there are competing voices, correct?

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WPost still gets ‘Julia’ vote, but what about church ladies?

The other day I wrote a post about a Washington Post story about the upcoming elections that managed to do something really interesting: It addressed the challenges Democrats are facing as they try to frame issues going into the midterm elections in ways that would inspire their voters, yet managed to do so without mentioning the ongoing “pew gap” factor.

You remember the pew gap don’t you? It’s the trend, during recent decades, in which people who frequently attend worship services (especially among white voters) tend to vote for morally and culturally conservative candidates. And the opposite?

Thus, a key passage in that Post report discussed:

So much has been made of the building blocks the president assembled to win his two elections — the outpouring of voters younger than 30; the long lines at precincts in African American communities; the support he engendered among the rising Hispanic population; the growing support for him and Democrats generally among unmarried women. …

Obama hopes to stir his base to action and in the past two weeks has been trying to push all the buttons.

The story contained tons of valid and interesting info. I simply wanted to know how the Post team could address this topic with zero references to the impact of religion on American public life and, yes, voting patterns. For example, I suggested that there might be a religion ghost linked to the fact that Democrats do so well with single women (think “Julia”), while Republicans draw strong support among married women.

Now, the big paper here in Beltway land is back with a long A1 report under the headline: “Women could be critical to key races, and both parties are going all out to get their votes.” Here’s a key block of summary material:

Republicans have watched with rising alarm as female voters, especially younger and unmarried ones, have moved toward ­Democratic hopefuls. Democrats have exploited inarticulate or sexist remarks by some Republicans and harsh antiabortion measures passed in GOP-led legislatures or sponsored by party candidates.

In Washington, Democratic lawmakers have also pushed bills designed to draw a contrast, including this month’s Paycheck Fairness Act, which died in the Senate. President Obama instead signed two executive orders designed to advance equal pay. As a result, the gender gap has grown in recent election years to Democrats’ advantage. Women make up a larger percentage of the electorate than men, they are disproportionately likely to go to the polls in midterm election years, and they are more likely to vote Democratic than men are to vote Republican.

Notice that, at this point, the story is making little or no effort to discuss the divisions inside the women’s vote, which is hardly monolithic.

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Same-sex marriage, religious freedom and a liberal twist

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An extremely interesting — and potentially highly important — twist came Monday in the ongoing culture wars over religious liberty.

New York Times religion writer Michael Paulson reports:

In a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a liberal Protestant denomination on Monday filed a lawsuit arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring clergy members from blessing gay and lesbian couples.

The lawsuit, filed in a Federal District Court by the United Church of Christ, is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination challenging a state’s marriage laws. The denomination, which claims nearly one million members nationwide, has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.

“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.

The denomination argues that a North Carolina law criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment. Mr. Clark said that North Carolina allows clergy members to bless same-sex couples married in other states, but otherwise bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for same-sex couples, and that “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgments.”

The relatively brief Times story quotes Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which supports same-sex marriage:

“In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views,” Mr. Wolfson said. “The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs.”

The report also quotes a same-sex marriage opponent (the same one used by The Associated Press):

But Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, which opposes same-sex marriage, derided the legal action as “the lawsuit of the week filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina.”

“It’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs,” Ms. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”

Here’s what I find intriguing: If North Carolina can tell clergy that they can’t perform same-sex marriages (regardless of whether the state recognizes them), what’s to prevent states that allow gay weddings from telling clergy that they must perform them? The values coalition source doesn’t seem to answer that direct question.

In a front-page Charlotte Observer story on the lawsuit, religious conservatives also address the rightness/wrongness of same-sex marriage itself:

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Was Kabul shooting over religion? Shouldn’t someone ask?

Q: What question has no answer? A: The one you don’t ask.

In Thursday’s shooting of several people at a Christian hospital in Kabul, the question would be: Could it have anything to do with their religion?

True, the answer doesn’t rest neatly on the surface. The shooter — horrifically, a policeman assigned to guard the hospital — didn’t shout the usual “Alahu Akbar” before gunning down Dr. Jerry Umanos and two visitors at CURE International Hospital. Nor have any organizations like the Taliban claimed responsibility.

So reporters need to look for clues. And there are a few scattered throughout news stories on the atrocity — clues that, thus far, don’t seem to have drawn journalistic curiosity.

The reports do have some positives, especially from a GetReligion standpoint. Most acknowledge the Christian nature of the hospital, its workers, and the Pennsylvania-based agency that runs it. The stories bring out the good done by the medical missionaries in Afghanistan. And they quote Jan Schuitema, the doctor’s widow, on her grief laced with idealism.

An example from CBS News:

“We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this,” she said speaking outside the family’s home in Chicago Thursday, her son, Ben Umanos, by her side. “We don’t know what his history is.”

She said that Umanos went to Afghanistan because he saw the need there, she said.

“Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

Such eloquent quotes should have set reporters’ cliched “nose for news” tingling. But no, we get other cliches — “foreign,” “foreigners,” “Westerners” — that skirt religious considerations. And we get them with numbing repetition.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest attack on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” says CBS News.

* The latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here,” the  New York Times said.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” reports the New York Daily News.

* “Over the past three months, as Afghanistan is in the midst of electing a new president, 20 foreigners have been killed in separate attacks targeting civilians,” according to an NPR correspondent. “The attacks have occurred at a popular restaurant, an upscale hotel and other venues where foreigners congregate.”

The Los Angeles Times dipped into a think-tanker’s writings about civilians:

“They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit Western governments rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan,” Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote recently.

One quote, two cliches.

Yes, other “foreigners” have been attacked recently. Just since March, four journalists have been shot. But the hospital shooting poses extra questions.

What do Islamist militants reportedly hate about “Western” values, even in secular stories? The welfare of women, for one. Some current articles highlight topics like women in sports, education, law enforcement and Afghanistan’s parliament. And CNN explores the kind of influence that Afghan women could wield on the upcoming national election.

Afghan children, too, take a fair amount of attention in news articles. The stories look sympathetically at child labor, marriage, recreation programs, and child casualties in the ongoing war.

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So divorced man says his new wife says the pope said ….

Well, there is no question that the buzz-worthy story of the day is the further adventures of the modern shepherd who is now being hailed as the Cold Call Pope.

Trust me, it would be easy to jump into the doctrinal implications of this story, because the stakes for the church and the papacy are very high. Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has already gone straight there:

Why is this such a big deal? Because if the pope himself told a Catholic to defy licit Catholic teaching on something as central to the faith as the Eucharist, the implications are enormous. To be sure, there are pastoral reasons why this mercy might be extended to people. “Father Bergoglio,” as the Pope reportedly identified himself on the call, might well have extended them. But the pontiff doing the same thing, and so casually, is potentially explosive. A pope simply can’t say, “Defy the church, don’t worry about it.” Well, he can say it, and he might have done; the papal spokesman declining to talk about it is hardly confidence-inspiring.

Meanwhile, I would like to try to focus on what GetReligion does — which is to look at the journalism element of this story. And what we see there is another side effect, in this 24/7 digital news age, of this pope’s highly personal approach to pastoral care. He wants to deal with people as a pastor — Father Bergoglio, indeed — instead of having to go through the numbing mechanisms of statecraft and lofty papal statements.

The problem, for journalists? This is highly newsworthy material and, well, journalists cannot listen in on these private pastoral calls. It’s like we are seeing white smoke above the Vatican and no one really knows where it came from or what it means.

The top of the CNN story is as good a place to start as any:

(CNN) – Pope Francis called an Argentine woman married to a divorced man and reportedly told her that she could receive the sacrament of Communion, according to the woman’s husband, in an apparent contradiction of Catholic law.

Julio Sabetta, from San Lorenzo in the Pope’s home country, said his wife, Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona, spoke with Francis on Monday.

OK, so the information isn’t even coming from Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona herself, with her offering her take on what she believes that the pope said to her (let’s hope she took careful notes). Instead, this information is coming through a man who is, to say the least, involved in this complicated situation — yet who did not hear the call at all.

That leads us to the alleged content of this call:

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WPost team looks at politics in 2014, sees zero folks in pews

It’s time to set the wayback (actually, it’s WABAC) machine for the year 2003, when editors of The Atlantic Monthly published one of the most famous anecdotal ledes in the recent history of American politics.

The article was called “Blue Movie: The “morality gap” is becoming the key variable in American politics” and the essay opened like this:

Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.

Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors — and better indicators of partisan inclination — than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter. …

Later on, of course, as the red zip code vs. blue zip code warfare became more refined, pollsters began to focus on a more refined research angle — which became known as “The Pew Gap.” The basic truth: The best way to predict the behavior of white voters — irregardless of their religious traditions — was to find out how often they attended worship services. The more often they were in a religious sanctuary, the more likely they were to vote for culturally conservative candidates (usually Republicans, in recent decades).

In other words, a person’s religious beliefs and practice matter, when it comes time to predict her or his actions in a voting booth.

This brings me to a recent story in The Washington Post, which ran under this headline: “Democrats seek to reshape midterm electorate along lines of a presidential year.” The lede is perfectly obvious, to anyone who lives here in Beltway-land or reads news produced by the scribes who gather here:

Democrats have a problem and everyone knows it. President Obama calls it a “congenital disease.” If they can’t control it, Obama could spend the final years of his presidency battling not only a Republican House but also a Republican Senate.

Democrats don’t vote in midterm elections. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the core of the Democratic coalition is made up of many people who turn out to vote only in presidential elections. The Republican coalition — older and whiter — suffers less from midterm falloff.

So what is wrong with this story? What is the crucial element that the Post team totally ignored?

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The Atlantic slips — somehow — inside mind of Benedict XVI

During the annual pre-Easter season of snarky or mildly negative religion stories, I think that I received more personal emails about the Pope Benedict XVI vs. Pope Francis story in The Atlantic than any other item (even more than the Mrs. Jesus media blitz, if you can believe that).

Quite a few readers wanted to critique some of the alleged facts in the story or note some of its inconsistencies. For example, at one point Benedict is portrayed as an all-dominating doctrinal bully. Flip a few pages and readers are then told that he was a totally hands-off leader who, when it came to governing the church, “didn’t interfere even when he was pope!” Yes, the exclamation mark is in the text.

Most of the emails missed the point. You see, “The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis” isn’t really a work of journalism.

Oh, the author makes it clear that he went to Rome and, apparently, he even drove around and talked with some people. But the result isn’t a work of journalism built on clearly attributed information. No, this is something else — it’s a work of apologetics.

Do you remember that famous Peggy Noonan quote about Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a show for which she served as a consultant?

A reporter once asked me if I thought, as John Podhoretz had written, that “The West Wing” is, essentially, left-wing pornography. I said no, that’s completely wrong. “The West Wing” is a left-wing nocturnal emission — undriven by facts, based on dreams, its impulses as passionate as they are involuntary and as unreflective as they are genuine.

That’s kind of what we are dealing with here, especially in the passages in which essayist Paul Elie all but claims to have read the mind of Benedict, perhaps while driving past his abode (I am not making that part up, honest). This piece is a love song to all of the Catholics who suffered so much during the terrifying reign of the soon-to-be St. John Paul II and his bookworm bully, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Here’s a sample, right up front:

Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity — and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.

Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity.

Interview? Quote? A second-hand reflection from a key aide, even an anonymous aide? And then there is the thesis statement:

And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence — a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.

It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.

Dismantles? Pope Francis has dismantled orthodox Catholicism?

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Weed in Denver, but Easter news on other front pages

If you live in the Mile High City (no pun intended), you woke up Sunday morning to this banner headline on your hometown paper’s front page:

Welcome to Weed Country

Happy Easter to you, too, Denver Post!

Another Colorado newspaper had a much better week than the Post — and not just because it won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. The Colorado Springs Gazette, edited my my friend and former colleague Joe Hight, filled up two-thirds of its Sunday front page with this headline:

The road to Chimayo

Yes, the Gazette published a major religion story — and not a marijuana tourism piece — on its Easter front page:

The road to Chimayo, N.M. is long and tiring during the Christian holy week leading up to Easter.

But the spirits of the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 pilgrims who walk for hours to reach a famous Roman Catholic church outside of Santa Fe are anything but weary.

George Warda of Parker has made the journey for the past 20 years. Maybe more; he’s lost count.

At about mile 13 of his 15-mile trek on Good Friday, Warda was sending thanks to God for his family’s blessings and praying for a little help with health challenges.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than this time,” he said. “It’s very spiritual. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Pilgrims, from babies in strollers to the elderly with canes, come from nearby towns and faraway states. Warda wore a Colorado T-shirt.

Across the nation, some papers — like the Post — failed to acknowledge Easter on the front page.

But many others — like the Gazette — recognized the news value of Christianity’s most important holiday.

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